In tragic incidents where human fatalities occur, we can begin to piece together clues as to what happened; that’s not so difficult; that’s what forensic science is all about. Why has it occurred? That’s not as easy of a question to answer.
On August 2nd, in response to two lives lost on the Snoqualmie River and organized by Eastside Fire & Rescue and Fall City Fire, State, County, Fire, and Law enforcement agencies joined forces hoping to spread awareness of the dangers in our local waterways and acknowledge the recent tragedies.
Unfortunately, since that attempt to spread awareness, another life was lost in Carnation on August 17th.
Living Snoqualmie was directed to Seattle & King County Public Health for historical river death numbers. From the Communications Department, Kaila Lafferty said, “Public Health data shows six deaths in the Snoqualmie River from 2018-2022.” These numbers do not include motor vehicle-related drownings. All six deaths from 2018-2022 were related to water activities.
We contacted King County Media Relations, Officer Sgt. Eric M. White and King County Marine Unit Sgt. Richard Barton for the 2023 numbers, who verified two deaths* on the Snoqualmie River in 2023. This number stands at three after the recent tragedy last week.
*there were some erroneous reports that the 2023 number is as high as 7 or 8, which were found to be false
Why does this keep happening?
To try and understand “why” this keeps happening and “what” different groups of people think should be done to prevent further tragedy; Living Snoqualmie decided to watch videos from the media event again and contact all interested parties to ask more questions.
Two distinct schools of thought exist regarding river safety and usage; those who want the public to be more informed and safer regarding river usage and those who would like river usage to be limited or stopped altogether.
Safety and Prevention
King County Undersheriff Jesse Anderson started by acknowledging the tragedies that have happened recently on the river. Anderson said that as a parent, he can “only imagine what the families are going through right now.”
Anderson went on to say that this is a difficult time, and we need to think about those families and know this is why everyone needs to work together to educate to prevent more of these incidents.
The universal message among all participants was to stress that recreation on a wild river can end tragically if people don’t wear life vests. Anderson noted that it’s essential to understand when enjoying the outdoors in King County that rivers can look very serene and refreshing from a distance, but they can be very dangerous.
Sgt. Richard Barton, a King County Marine Rescue Dive Unit member, agreed that even when the river is at its lowest point throughout the year, it is still wild, and life jackets should always be worn. It may look meandering, calm, and serene, but there are things under the water that you can’t see.
Fall City Fire Chief Brian Culp spoke on the importance of paddleboard safety since two victims were using these floating devices. Culp explained the danger of using paddleboards on swift water comes from tethers. Experts in the stand-up paddleboard community generally advise NOT to wear a leash when paddleboarding on rivers, especially if you are inexperienced with the sport.
Even quick-release, coiled leashes can be challenging to detach under swift-moving water. Unlike flat, open water, rivers pose unseen threats that ankle leashes can quickly get tangled in. This is how two of the recent victims died. A quick-release waist belt should be worn if tethers are worn, allowing you to detach from your board quickly, without reaching your ankle, in an emergency.
Fire Chief Culp also talked about the availability of life jackets in King County and the Puget Sound area. There are many life jackets stations that fire departments work extremely hard to keep stocked. In addition, there are coupons for discounts on life vests at Big Five within most local fire stations.
Ben Lane, Fire Chief of Eastside Fire & Rescue, was the last to speak, adding that it is good practice to check how the weather has been where you plan to go.
Lane stated that if there has been a recent rain or snow melt, the water level can fluctuate, and it’s imperative to be prepared and at least educated on where you plan to go. When rivers flood, water depth becomes a safety issue. However, flooding can also create unexpected currents where the water was previously calm, and hazards that were once above the waterline are now hidden under the water.
Opposition to River Recreation and Concern for Wildlife
A small group of residents, including a homeowner who attempted to rescue two drowning victims, were present at the meeting and expressed many concerns.
In a statement sent via email to Living Snoqualmie, a group of residents from David Powell Road shared their thoughts on the recent tragedies. They cite “several challenges and problems that exist as a result of the overuse of this river by those who float on it,” such as trash, contamination from sunblock and impact on fish runs.
These homeowners believe the “government is turning a blind eye to the effect on nature caused by the floating.”
Additionally, the group stated, “This river is dangerous and will continue to take the lives of unsuspecting floaters who are duped into believing it is safe…. The government provides permits allowing a commercial group to offer floating devices and tell their customers the activity they promote is safe.”
Despite assurances that safety information is provided to those who use the local business shuttle to float the river, they say, “When we speak to their customers, they tell us no such information has been conveyed to them.”
Similar viewpoints were expressed on social media in the weeks following the first two drownings, with locals threatening to organize and take care of obstruction removal themselves.
I asked Chase Gunnell, Communications Manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Why or why not would removing the snag where the two people were killed be a feasible solution to the problem in the area? And if there would be a potential harm to the river if all human hazards were removed. Assuming things like this are not cleared, what is the reason? Lastly, some rivers do get closed from time to time (i.e., the Nooksack). Why isn’t this the case for the Snoqualmie?
Said Gunnell, “River hazards should be relayed to the King County Sheriff’s Marine unit at 206-296-3311 so they can perform a safety assessment to determine the risk to public safety. Based upon their assessment and recommendation, WDFW would work with the King County Environmental Services group so the hazard can be modified (in most cases), relocated, or, if needed, removed.”
As far as the potential harm of removing such things, he said, “Wood helps stabilize shorelines and provides vital juvenile and adult habitat for salmon and other creatures. Preserving and even increasing the amounts of large woody debris along shorelines is important for keeping our aquatic areas healthy and improving the survival of native salmon and other animals.”
“Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fish biologists currently do not consider recreational floating on the Snoqualmie to be an urgent salmon and steelhead conservation issue as we did on the South Fork Nooksack due to differences in run timing and water temperatures. Unlike the Snoqualmie, the South Fork Nooksack runs exceptionally warm and slow in the summer with a limited number of deeper pools where the salmon stage, and is home to an early-returning summer Chinook run that is a high conservation priority for WDFW and the local Nooksack Tribe and Lummi Nation.“
The Root Cause? Or a Convenient Scapegoat?
As early as 2010, floating on the Snoqualmie in Fall City was an open secret. Reports on social media and YouTube videos turned the Snoqualmie River area into a mass of trash and badly parked cars. The Fall City Float Task Force was created to try and find ideas to deal with the explosive growth in the waterway’s popularity. The Fall City Community Association bore the brunt of trash pickup and disposal.
Fall City Floating (FCF) started in 2015 when owner Simon learned while floating the Wenatchee River with a Leavenworth floating company that the Snoqualmie River had no such business to aid the floaters who flocked to Fall City on hot days.
According to Fall City Floating’s Season wrap-up report for last year (2022 and previous years’ reports available on request), the company picked up an estimated 28180 pounds of trash and recycled 3125 pounds of aluminum cans from six locations along the river. 17% of their total labor hours are spent on this task.
Regarding safety, all customers must sign a waiver created with King County acknowledging the risk of injury or death and listen to a safety briefing in the shuttle on the way to the drop-off point. All rentals come with a life vest; vests are available to any customer who wishes to rent one and are strongly encouraged.
Additionally, signage is posted along the river warning of obstructions and directing floaters to stay left or right with a hotline number to call if you or someone else gets into trouble.
Their website states, “Alcohol use is not permitted on King County or Fish and Wildlife Property. This includes the King County Community Park and our facilities. People who are intoxicated or drinking in public view will have their items confiscated by the FCF Staff or the King County Sheriff. The Washington State Patrol has begun regular DUI patrols of Fall City during warm weekends.”
FCF served 20,020 customers in 2022 and 24,923 in 2021. No drownings recently or in their previous seasons were Fall City Floating customers.
Next Steps and Progress Update
John Taylor, King County Director of Local Services, says, “At this point, the steps we have taken are beefing up signage on the river. Directing Fall City Floating to emphasize safety with their customers – they had an all-staff safety meeting last week.”
Fall City Floating’s Public Outreach Manager says they’ve started repeating the safety briefing a second time when customers exit the shuttle and have made the location markers bigger and bolder.
All participating agencies are collaborating to heighten awareness about the potential risks associated with the river and promote best safety practices. The river is frequently used by many, and most do so responsibly and safely.
However, it’s evident that authorities have limitations and cannot be omnipresent. It’s imperative for individual users and the community at large to be vigilant and foster a sense of mutual care and look out for each other.
-Living Snoqualmie would like to extend its deepest sympathies to the families of those who lost their lives this year and to those who witnessed the tragedies